Rebuilding Lives in Marawi

By Dr. Tessie San Martin
September 10, 2019

In May 2017, the Philippine Armed Forces moved against Islamic State-affiliated militant groups in Marawi City. This effort, known as the Marawi Siege, lasted for five months, rendering it the longest episode of urban warfare in the Philippines. Some five months later the Armed Forces of the Philippines defeated the militant groups. But the damage that resulted from the conflict was significant. More than a thousand people died, thousands more were injured, and approximately 350,000 became internally displaced persons (IDPs) in neighboring communities and provinces. And, as in all these conflicts, those most vulnerable and affected were women and children, especially girls.  

Marawi is one of the poorest areas in the country, with poverty rates above 50 percent. The complex history of ethnic, religious, clan, and criminal rivalries, as well as armed conflict over the past decades, has brought severe consequences for children, including death, injury, displacement, sexual violence, and recruitment into armed forces/groups. Child marriage has been on the rise as parents seek physical or economic security for their daughters, limiting their opportunities for education, livelihoods, and health, and increasing the possibilities for gender-based violence. Child mortality and stunting in the region is twice as high as the average for the rest of the Philippines.

Since September 2018, in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Plan International has been implementing the Marawi Response Project (MRP). We had the chance to travel to Marawi last week and see the ongoing work firsthand. The project’s initial design was to support the short-term recovery needs of the displaced and their host communities. Plan proposed an integrated approach, combining economic initiatives with efforts to generate social cohesion, which included livelihood grants, business recovery grants, and what we called social cohesion grants. The latter activities were meant to encourage those displaced and those hosting the displaced to work together to initiate short-term actions with local authorities that would help improve conditions in these communities. 

To date, the project has helped more than 140 businesses that were caught in the middle of the conflict in Marawi City (the most affected area also called “Ground Zero”) to restart operations. Some of these activities include helping bakers procure new equipment to replace what was lost, tailors and seamstresses acquire new sewing machines, and grocers obtain new inventory, enabling them to reenter the market. Livelihood grants, targeting those displaced and their hosts to generate some cash and defray the costs of living in a new community, are especially helpful for women, who represent more than 60 percent of the displaced population in the project region. Most importantly, the project enables those displaced by the conflict to begin reengaging in their previous work and become more self-reliant. In addition, our project focuses on those most impacted and needing to enter the workplace – women and youth – through targeted training and linkages to business opportunities.

Despite the effectiveness of our work, it also needs to adapt to the situation on the ground, which has changed and continues to change. As reported in the Washington Post some months ago, and as we saw ourselves, rebuilding has been slow for many reasons, including disputes over property rights, securing funding, and the slow and painstaking effort to ensure all the unexploded ordnances have been cleared. This means that almost two years after the siege ended, tens of thousands are still displaced, nothing in the most affected area has been rebuilt, and those displaced now face the prospect of not being able to return for the foreseeable future. This is a dramatic shift from hopes and expectations for return that were alive just a short time ago. Host communities and relatives planning on short-term support now face a situation in which displacement no longer seems to be a temporary condition.  

In this context, the project is shifting from short-term recovery to longer-term economic revitalization. This change is having some success. For example, integrated programming, which gives grants to support the purchase of sewing machines, is complemented by training in business plan development, support in generating business linkages, and outreach to customers through trade fairs throughout the region. These are combined with support in business registration and the provision of mentorship. This approach has helped transform a short-term activity focusing on a few individual young women into a marketing consortium, setting a model for broader movements to support female entrepreneurship and business growth in the region. The transformative elements of such programs are promising, and the project is shifting more attention to youth groups and employability. But the scale of these activities is limited to date. The project will need to do much more of these activities to have an impact. 

Equally important, the project is re-orienting social cohesion activities from exercises in community solidarity and local government outreach, such as developing community scorecards, to community mobilization around specific reconstruction activities, which recognize the reality that the internally displaced could be there for the long-term. These initiatives surface key infrastructure needs of communities – improved street lighting, water, sewage, and common spaces for conducting business – that MRP can assist communities and local governments to address.

MRP is not unique. Most development projects find that the conditions that led to the initial design are not those that prevail upon project execution given changing local contexts. This is particularly true in post-conflict/conflict-affected environments. Projects must to be designed with the need for flexibility, in order to adapt to changing circumstances. USAID has recognized this reality as it re-engineers many of its processes such as acquisition, assistance to emphasize adaptive management, and co-design. This is tricky business when we are dealing with taxpayer money. Adaptations could be viewed as cop-outs, failures as lack of accountability. Success in this way of working requires the development agency and its implementing partners to trust each other, actively engage with stakeholders and beneficiaries to be able to act quickly on feedback, and be willing to take risks. In an environment characterized by major budget uncertainty and cuts, this collaborative and adaptive approach provides a way for USAID and implementing partners to react to changing conditions and continue to assist communities.